Pawnbrokers Thrive as Poorest Aussies Bear Brunt of Slowdown

On a sidewalk in Sydney’s Bankstown neighborhood, where unemployment is more than double Australia’s average, Dave Cox pulls the starter cord of an edge trimmer to prove it works as he tries to sell it to pawnbroker Cash Converters International Ltd.

“The economy is pretty crap right now,” 38-year-old truck driver Cox, who’s between jobs, said after he offloaded the snipper for A$30 ($28). In the past month, he sold an iPhone and got a loan at Cash Converters, whose sales last year grew faster than any other Australian retailer that didn’t make a major acquisition. “It just feels bad out there.”

While a mining-investment boom has sustained Australia’s growth and employment, many like Cox have missed out and instead seen finances stretched by high housing costs, driving them into the arms of pawnbrokers. Central bank efforts to plug the gap with record-low interest rates are bypassing lower-income households, which account for just 6 percent of the nation’s home buyers, while government and opposition pledges to return the budget to surplus mean support for the most marginalized has declined as welfare payments stagnate.

“I’m not surprised,” Bernie Fraser, whose tenure as Reserve Bank of Australia governor from 1989 to 1996 included the last recession in 1991, said of the increasing use of pawnbrokers. “I think that’s pretty heavily correlated with a lot of people doing things tough, and that’s going to continue I believe.”

Gillard Ousted

The economy switched from a strength to a liability for the ruling Labor Party, which last week dumped Julia Gillard as leader in favor of Kevin Rudd. The new prime minister, who reclaimed the post after he was ousted by Gillard three years ago, signaled economic management will be central to his bid to reel in an almost two-year lead in polls for the opposition.

Cash Converters -- which offers pawnbroking, payday loans, goods sales and installment loans -- recorded the fastest growth of any Australian retailer with more than $100 million in sales last year that didn’t see revenue boosted by a major purchase, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Revenue jumped 26 percent in 2012. In contrast, sales at the country’s largest electrical-goods retailer, Harvey Norman Holdings Ltd., fell 7.6 percent.

“Part of why we’ve got that growth could well be the economy,” said Peter Cumins, managing director at Perth-based Cash Converters, who added that store locations are chosen for proximity to households with stretched finances. “Certainly, we are recession proof in that regard.”

Outlook Sours

Australia has posted the developed world’s quickest growth rates as demand from China fueled a once-in-a-century mining-investment boom. That’s souring as China’s outlook deteriorates and the Aussie dollar’s strength forces companies including Ford Motor Co. to cut workers and close plants.

Economists at Macquarie Group Ltd., Australia’s largest investment bank, see a 40 percent chance of recession in the next 12 months -- defined locally as two consecutive quarters of contraction -- even after the central bank cut rates to a record-low 2.75 percent. Saul Eslake, chief Australia economist for Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Melbourne, projects a 25 percent chance for 2015.

“We expect the RBA to cut further -- to as low as 1 percent in the event of a recession -- and it may need to undertake a ‘Down Under QE,’” Eslake wrote in a June 14 note to clients, referring to a local version of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative-easing policy to support economic growth.

New Customers

South of Melbourne, Victoria’s state capital, some of pawnbroker Joe Yammouni’s customers are coming to his store, Cash Deal, on the Mornington Peninsula for the first time since he opened in 2001.

“I’m talking your average family members who you wouldn’t have seen before, who come in and say ‘I’m so embarrassed for being here,’” he said. “Things are tight at the moment; they just get unexpected bills or payments come through and they have to use our services.”

A decline in new electronic product prices is compounding difficulties for people selling goods for cash, said Yammouni, 41, who has worked in the industry since 1994. A A$3,000 TV that could be resold for A$1,000 five years ago now retails for about A$400, and as a reseller today, “you’d take whatever you could get,” he said.

One in eight Australians and one in six children live below the poverty line, according to a report last year by the Australian Council of Social Service. The group defines the level as 50 percent of median disposable income, a standard measure of financial hardship in wealthy countries, it says.

Jobless Payments

That was A$358 per week for a single adult in 2010 and A$752 for a couple with two children, the October 2012 Acoss report showed. Australia’s unemployed receive A$248.50 a week for as long as they demonstrate an active search for work, a payment that’s been indexed to inflation for more than 30 years.

An increase beyond consumer-price growth is unlikely as Australia’s slowdown curbs tax revenue and both major political parties vow to return the budget to balance.

“The existing government, and even more so the incoming government, are making it clear they’re not going to use that fiscal-policy instrument, which is crazy really,” said Fraser, 72, who was also secretary to the Treasury from 1984 to 1989. “Monetary policy doesn’t have any distributional consequences.”

Investors are pricing in a 23 percent chance the RBA will lower the benchmark rate by a quarter percentage point to 2.5 percent at tomorrow’s policy meeting in Brisbane.

Uneven Benefits

While a home owner with a A$300,000 mortgage is about A$300 a month better off since the RBA started cutting rates in November 2011, few lower-income households are benefiting. The proportion of Australian homebuyers in the bottom 40 percent of incomes is just 6 percent, according to the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.

Fiona Guthrie, executive director of Financial Counselling Australia in Brisbane, Queensland’s state capital, said the use of short-term loans is spreading. While industry rates vary, interest charges and fees can equate to as much as 912.5 percent annualized, according to the Melbourne-based Consumer Action Law Centre. That compares with about 15 percent for an unsecured personal loan from one of the nation’s biggest banks.

“Payday loans just defer an inevitable financial crisis,” Guthrie said. “They trap people in debt” and aren’t “a benefit to them.”

The Australian government, responding to criticism of the payday-loan industry, introduced a cap beginning today that prevents lenders from charging more than 20 percent upfront and 4 percent a month in fees for the life of the loan.

More Loans

Cash Converters also has outlets in the U.K., Spain and Dubai, where it targets arriving and departing expatriates trading second-hand goods. Its personal-loan book in Australia increased by 25 percent in the six months through December to A$84.2 million. Its cash-advance business rose 7.1 percent to A$126.5 million loaned, while the number of active customers climbed 16 percent. Store sales grew 6.5 percent.

Cash Converters shares jumped 4.2 percent to A$1.12 at the close in Sydney, even as the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 Index slumped 1.9 percent. The stock has surged 70 percent in the past 12 months, versus about a 42 percent gain for the S&P/ASX 200 Retailing Index.

Australia’s economy grew 2.5 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier, the slowest pace in almost two years. While unemployment was 5.5 percent in May, it was 10 percent or higher in 9.6 percent of the nation’s 1,402 regions during the fourth quarter, according to government data. The level was 14 percent for Bankstown in Sydney’s west.

Businesses Squeezed

Mortgage arrears rose in March -- indicating lower borrowing costs aren’t sufficient for some households -- and a record number of the nation’s companies went bust in April.

Grant Russell has had “quite a lot of business people who are literally financing their staff” by pawning personal possessions such as family jewelry during the past 12 months at his Cash Centre store in the outer Melbourne town of Frankston.

Russell, who also heads the Victorian Independent Pawnbrokers Association and is a 24-year industry veteran, said the value of items is “dropping quite rapidly,” and stores are becoming more selective in what they’ll accept. Many are so full of power tools from tradesmen waiting on delayed payments that they will no longer offer credit on the equipment, he said.

The practice of hocking goods shot to prominence in the past five years with the advent of television programs such as “Pawn Stars,” which first aired in 2009 as the U.S. economy struggled to emerge from the deepest recession since the 1930s. It was followed a year later by “Hardcore Pawn,” set in Detroit, a city that’s battling potential bankruptcy.

‘Weird and Wonderful’

Russell said the American programs fueled misconceptions in Australia that people offered “weird and wonderful things” to hock. “It’s bread and butter items that people bring in: video games, flat-panel TVs, laptop computers, always there’s a few power tools,” he said.

Outside Cash Converters in Bankstown, Cox said he wasn’t surprised to learn the pawnbroker is Australia’s best-performing retailer. A staff member told him during the sale of the edge trimmer that the iPhone he brought in the prior week had been sold for almost double what he was paid.

“That’s business and they do it well,” Cox said.